Futurecasting, My Students, and Our Sector

In this second post during “Future Week”, here at Classroom to Capitol, I’m sharing an assignment that I created for my two policy classes this semester and how it fits with our critical challenge, as a nonprofit sector, to move beyond strategic plans that assume the world will stay mostly as it is (because it won’t), to instead prepare ourselves (and our future colleagues) to prepare to thrive in a nearly unimaginable (right now) future.

In both my first-year MSW and Advanced Policy courses, students are required to investigate, analyze, and then comment on at least one macro trend expected to influence their current and future organizations, the realm of public policy in which they work, and their own practices. It’s not a research project, as such, in that no one can definitively predict these impacts, and students’ interpretations of the likely meaning of these trends are taken as valid and worthy of consideration, provided that the are based on sound reasoning and a firm grasp of the current state of their respective fields. They have some leeway to identify the trend(s) they want to study, but some that are suggested include:

  • Increasing representation of people of color in the population and among social work clients
  • Rise of mobile technologies and its impact on the digital divide
  • Declining federal financial aid for higher education and accompanying increasing tuition prices
  • Growth of nonprofit administration degrees outside of social work
  • Climate change (disaggregated in the developing and more developed economies)
  • Growth in the older adult population in the U.S., especially as compared to the working-age population
  • Demographic shifts towards the Southeast and Southwest, and away from traditional population centers in the Northeast

    The Future of Nonprofits stresses the importance of “futuring” for nonprofit organizations, as a way to outline some of the potential scenarios in which the organizations may operate, to identify opportunities and challenges embedded within them. As someone whose feelings about more traditional strategic planning are well-known (!), I really appreciated how the authors distinguish between those rather static exercises and this more freeform thinking about what could be, and what that could mean.

    For my students, once they are freed from the anxiety associated with fearing that they need to have some sort of crystal ball, the opportunity to talk with their peers and brainstorm about what could be coming (and how it might affect them) is pretty rewarding. I’m consistently impressed (and pleased!) with how often they identify the potential in these trends, not just the threats–I don’t know if it’s their youth or their innate optimism or what, but they tend to gravitate, even, towards the hidden good, while retaining a focus on vulnerable populations that could be adversely impacted in various future environments.

    I hope that, as part of our work together, my students develop and maintain a true curiosity about what the world holds, how it got this way, and where it might be headed.

    Knowing where to go, with whom to talk, what to read, and what questions to ask in order to figure out what’s going on with the people we serve, the organizations where we work, and the field in which we operate is integral to questioning the world as it is, and to imagining the world as it could be. It requires approaching life a bit more like my oldest son does–absolutely everything is questioned with a “why?” and a “why not?”–and casting a net wide enough to bring in diverse perspectives that can help us answer those most important questions.

    I think it’s more valuable, for them as professionals and for our profession as a whole, than the concrete knowledge (which will soon be outdated) or even the discrete skills I hope to pass along.

    Because, ultimately, I want my students to not just think about what the future might look like.

    I want them to help shape it, for the better. For all of us.

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